In photos: 'The Invisible Railroad' for Syrian refugees

Producer Aaron Ernst traced the paths of Syrian refugees through Europe, documenting their stories along the way

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The worst refugee crisis since World War II has been, for the most part, faceless. Though more than 3 million Syrians have fled vicious fighting in their country and millions more have been internally displaced, they remain invisible to most of the world. But for the Syrians brave enough to make the trek across the Mediterranean amid the brutal conditions and high risk of death, the danger they endure in hopes of a better life is all too real. The personal stories of the families who put their lives on the line offer the rest of us a closer look at a significant international crisis.

We captured stories of the Syrian refugee community in Europe and documented part of their journeys during an overseas trip reporting for Compass. Explore the people and sights behind “The Invisible Railroad.”

Our guide

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Our main contact with the Syrian refugee community in Sicily was Nawal Soufi, a 26-year-old Arabic-speaking Italian originally from Morocco. Before they leave the shores of Libya, many refugees have already been given her number, and will call her when they run into trouble on the open sea. 

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Soufi told us she is afraid to shut off her mobile phone in case she's needed to interpret. The two days we spent with her seemed like a week, as she constantly moved around Sicily aiding Syrians who needed help getting cell phone SIM cards, buying train tickets and contacting families back home. She is also somewhat controversial. Many of the refugees she helps are hoping to seek asylum in Northern Europe, but under the Dublin Regulation, they must apply for asylum in the EU country where they first arrive. Since Soufi helps families evade detection before reaching their destination country, she has been sued for aiding in illegal immigration. The charges were later dismissed and she remains unapologetic for her work.


Before leaving for Italy, the “migrant crisis” was entirely faceless and nameless to me. That changed when we met Ahmad Khalil and his family at the train station in Catania, Sicily. He was traveling with his wife and three children, and caught my eye when we were filming a group of refugees getting ready to board trains for Northern Europe. He was eager to tell his story before their train headed for Milan.

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Khalil left Damascus more than two years ago after militias attacked his neighborhood. His family finally fled after witnessing one of the worst massacres of the civil war – people being killed with knives and cleavers in front of their eyes. They made a harrowing escape to Beirut and then flew to Cairo. Khalil hoped to return home once Syria stabilized. That never happened. In the meantime, the situation in Egypt deteriorated, and he started planning his escape to Europe across the Mediterranean. He paid human smugglers for passage and was crammed into a boat with 500 others to make the journey across the sea. After five days on the Mediterranean, the Italian Coast Guard rescued them after they ran into rough seas.

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As I interviewed him, I noticed his daughter starting to cry, and asked him why she was sad. It was the sea, he said. Even a glimpse of the Mediterranean was enough to remind her of their perilous crossing. 

The crossing

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More than 1,750 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, three times more than last year this time, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. Two days before we arrived, about 850 people had died in a single incident when a boat carrying migrants, many locked in the hold, capsized. When we reached Sicily, we got word that another group of migrants had been rescued: 200 asylum-seekers from Sub-Saharan Africa who had set sail in a rubber dinghy. A media scrum had formed, filming stand-ups and the ubiquitous visuals of migrants coming off the ship and being checked by the Red Cross. Save the Children was there, along with the International Organization for Migration.

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The EU proposal to address the crisis has been very much focused on interdiction – destroying smugglers' boats and repatriating migrants when possible. But seeing the numbers who are willing to make the crossing, even after the recent mass deaths, made such proposals seem unrealistic. Many refugees we spoke with were fleeing threat of certain death. With the Mediterranean, at least they had a fighting chance.

The fingerprint game

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Upon arriving on the shores of Europe, migrants are to be governed by the Dublin Regulation, which affords them a chance to apply for asylum. But there’s a catch: They must apply for asylum in the country where they first arrive. For the vast majority of those crossing the Mediterranean, that country is Italy. Last year, Italy received 170,000 migrants; it will receive at least that many this year.

This quirk of the Dublin Regulation gives strong incentives to both the Italian authorities and the arriving immigrants to avoid a strict identification procedure. We spoke to multiple refugees who had simply left refugee-processing stations before they could be fingerprinted. Those were the lucky ones, who could continue on and claim asylum in their country of choice, often where they were traveling to rejoin family.

But we also came across a group of Syrians who said that they were forced to give their fingerprints, beaten and shocked with electric prods in Sicily when they refused. One man we spoke with was traveling with his son to rejoin his ex-wife and six children in Sweden. Now that he has been fingerprinted in Italy, when he applies for asylum in Sweden, he fears he and his son will be sent back to Italy.

Calling home

There are also migrants from many other nations willing to risk death for a chance at a new life in Europe. On our way to the migrant processing center in the Sicilian city of Pozallo, we came across a group of Syrians who alleged that the Italian police had beaten them to obtain fingerprints. The group was made up entirely of Syrians, except for one, a young man from Guinea-Bissau. The Syrians had taken him under their wing, and while we were stopped on the side of the road, one man motioned us over. He told us that the young man was crying, perhaps in hopes that we could help him in some way. He didn’t speak English or any other language we knew, but made it clear that he wanted to call back home.

He had a number to call, so Compass host Sheila MacVicar lent him her phone. After multiple tries, he finally got through to his mother. It was the first time he’d spoken to her since making the crossing. His face flashed a very quick, broad smile when he handed back the phone when he was done. In a moment, it vanished, and his face returned to the same far-off stare that he’d had before.  

The road to Milan

Last summer, more than 2,000 Syrians were arriving into the central train station of Milan each weekend. Some refugees arrived with salt from the Mediterranean still caked on their skin. The Milanese responded by launching Emergenza Siria, a network of everyday Italians who searched out Syrian refugees, giving them clothing, buying diapers for the children and food for the families. Word of the city’s kindness spread, and Milan became the biggest hub of the invisible railroad that aids refugees on the way to their ultimate destination elsewhere. When we arrived in late April, the numbers of Syrians had declined, but Milanese volunteers were still there.   

A better life

After interviewing Khalil and his family on the train, we left them in Sicily, not expecting to see them again. But when we arrived in Milan, our Italian fixer, Chiara, got word that Khalil and his family had just arrived in the city. We were able to interview them in the station before they boarded the train for the final leg of their journey. They were apprehensive of the border crossing, afraid that they’d get stopped and sent back to Italy. 

Later, Khalil texted to let us know that he’d arrived safely in Austria and was looking forward to his new life there. 

Arms wide open in Sodertalje

While Khalil and his family chose to travel to Austria, one of the friendliest destinations for Syrian refugees in Europe is further north. Sweden accepts more than 80,000 refugees each year and more than one-third of those are Syrian. One city in particular has opened wide its doors: Södertälje, 30 minutes outside of Stockholm. A third of its population is of Syrian origin, and the strong community attracts more refugees fleeing the war.

On the last day of our trip, a leader from the Syrian Orthodox community invited us to attend a fascinating cultural event. Each year, in what amounts to essentially low-level sectarian violence, two Syrian religious communities, the orthodox Syriacs and the more secular Assyrians, square off in a soccer grudge match. The first 19 minutes and five seconds were played in silence to commemorate the Armenian genocide of 1905. Every time one side came close to scoring, a ripple of noise would go through the crowd, only to be shushed by thousands of other spectators. The crowd exploded after the silence. Final score: 0-0.

Family reunification

Because the route out of Syria is so dangerous, many families split up on their way to a new life in Europe. Often, the husband will go ahead to establish himself, get a job, and then apply for family reunification.

Fadi, who asked us to disguise his face and not use his name, arrived in Södertälje six months ago. He had hoped to obtain his permanent residence quickly, so that he could send for his wife and two small children. But the process was dragging on, and he had recently been told it could take more than a year.

Meanwhile, more and more bombs have been dropping near the neighborhood in Syria where he left his wife and children. He’s desperate to bring them over, but after a harrowing Mediterranean crossing that included nearly two weeks adrift at sea, he doesn’t want his family to risk it. All he can do is wait – and call his wife when the Internet is working to see how she and the kids are doing. He can’t help but cry every time his wife sends a new picture of their two sons. 

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